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How Should the U.S. Respond to Orban’s Power Grab?

The Hungarian parliament voted late last month to grant the prime minister, Viktor Orban, indefinite power to rule by decree and forego elections, and this has prompted many in Europe and the U.S. to condemn the country’s slide towards authoritarianism. It has also led to new calls to expel the country from both the European Union and NATO. Fred Kaplan made the case for this shortly after the news broke:

It is time to kick Hungary out of the European Union and NATO. The country entered the Western alliance in the aftermath of the Cold War as a fledgling democracy, but has since reverted to autocracy.

Orban’s new powers are ostensibly meant to help Hungary combat the pandemic, but the legislation sets no time limit for how long he can retain these powers. The law also threatens imprisonment of up to eight years for anyone spreading “false” or “distorted” information, and that provision could easily be abused to punish political dissenters and stifle free speech and what remains of the independent press. The prime minister and his Fidesz party have been steadily accumulating power over the last decade since they entered government in 2010. Hungary has been run increasingly like a one-party state in the aftermath of the last great recession. The prime minister has boasted of promoting what he describes as illiberal democracy, so this latest move to assume quasi-dictatorial powers was not all that surprising. Given the power that Orban and his party already wielded before this, it is also a gratuitous power-grab. Tim Gosling commented on the new law earlier this month:

Orban’s opponents also stress that he already had the authority necessary to deal with the crisis before the emergency law was passed. “Orban has enjoyed almost unlimited power since 2010 thanks to his large majority in parliament,” said Hadhazy, a former member of Fidesz who left the party in 2013. “He has no need for any further power to fight the pandemic.”

The question of how Hungary’s allies and other European partners should respond to this development is complicated by the fact that neither the EU nor NATO has a mechanism for removing a member state. As satisfying as it may be to insist that this or that state should be “expelled,” there is no expulsion option available. The EU can suspend some rights of a member state through Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, but it cannot force it out against its will. NATO does not even have a provision for suspending its members. It probably never occurred to the architects of these organizations that they would want to have the option to reduce their numbers at some point in the future.

The EU and NATO can refuse to cooperate with Hungary, but that presents its own problems. It is difficult to see how NATO can function while blacklisting one of its own members, since the alliance makes decisions based on consensus. It is also hard to see how NATO can compel Orban to reverse course when Hungary faces no external military threats that would require him to call on the allies for assistance. It is all very well to say that the other NATO members shouldn’t “pledge to give up a drop of blood to preserve his reign,” as Kaplan puts it, but how likely is it that they would ever be called upon to do that? The other EU and NATO members could agree among themselves to shun Hungary diplomatically, but it is doubtful that there would be a united front. Some other governments in Europe would probably put maintaining good bilateral relations ahead of concerns about Hungarian democracy, and others might fear being the next target of similar treatment if they make political choices that displease Washington and Brussels.

An increasingly authoritarian government in the heart of Europe is disturbing and merits criticism from Hungary’s allies, but it is also not the first time that that a NATO member has been or has turned authoritarian. Portugal was a founding member of NATO in good standing for decades under the authoritarian government headed by Salazar. Greece was ruled by a military junta for seven years while remaining in the alliance. Turkey was a mostly authoritarian state throughout the Cold War, and this never affected its position in the alliance. Erdogan has consolidated power over the last two decades to such an extent that he effectively became a dictator years ago, but NATO punishment of Turkey has never gone beyond talking about it. This is not to dismiss the dangers that an authoritarian government can pose to its own people and to European stability, but it does force us to ask what the purpose of the alliance is now.

If NATO is primarily a security alliance rather than a political club defined by shared values and institutions, should the character of a member state’s government be grounds for withdrawing the alliance’s protection? If the alliance should do this in Hungary’s case, why not do the same with Turkey? Are there member states that have too much strategic value to the alliance that they cannot be disciplined with diplomatic isolation, or should the alliance enforce “red lines” against democratic backsliding equally no matter how weak or strong the state happens to be? NATO will have to start answering these questions, because this is likely to come up again in the future.

What sets Hungary apart from the other examples is that it is the first of the new members of the alliance added after the end of the Cold War to turn towards authoritarian rule. It is doing this at a time when the alliance no longer has a clear reason for being. Authoritarian members of a security alliance were tolerated when NATO’s purpose in defending against the USSR and the Warsaw Pact was clear, but with the disappearance of the Soviet threat has left the alliance without an obvious mission. Over the last thirty years, NATO has joined in some “out of area” operations to try to make itself relevant without much success, and it has steadily expanded its numbers to incorporate almost all of the countries that were once enemies of the alliance. The military necessity of NATO is questionable, so it is increasingly defined in terms of shared political values and goals. NATO membership has been dangled like a carrot to give states an incentive to commit to political and economic reforms, and membership in the alliance has become a way for central and eastern European countries to demonstrate that they are accepted by Western governments as equals. Alliance membership has become a stamp of approval for good political behavior rather than a decision based on a country’s value to the collective security of Europe, and now we are debating whether to take back that approval from Hungary, but we find that it can’t be revoked so easily. As a practical matter, NATO is stuck with the members that it has, so it would be wise for the alliance to think carefully before it brings in any more states that add little or nothing to allied security.

Failing the unrealistic option of expulsion, how might the U.S. and the rest of NATO respond to the developments in Hungary? There should be as many allied states acting together as possible to convey their strong disapproval of Orban’s rule by decree. Until the rule by decree is ended and elections are permitted again, Hungary should be isolated diplomatically and the other allied states should consider visa bans on leading Hungarian officials. It is possible that these measures won’t put enough pressure on the Hungarian government to repeal the law, but Hungary’s allies have to make clear that they aren’t going to go along with business as usual while Orban undermines the norms and institutions of democratic government. However, shutting off EU funds to Hungary during the pandemic would make no more sense than keeping sanctions in place in Iran. When the U.S. and the rest of NATO protest Orban’s power-grab, it cannot come at the expense of the Hungarian people.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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